Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin Ireland, Publisher, Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, satire, Setting

‘The Oh My God Delusion’ by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly

Oh-My-God-Delusion

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Ireland; 432 pages; 2010.

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, the alter-ego of journalist Paul Howard, is Ireland’s best kept secret.

I first discovered him when I attended DublinSwell earlier in the year. Howard was on the bill in the second half, and during his reading from his novel Mr S. and the Secrets of Andorra’s Box, done in the posh voice of Ross, he had the crowd of 2,000 people roaring with laughter, myself included. The next day I promptly went out and bought his latest book, The Oh My God Delusion, the tenth in a series following Ross O’CK, a stuck-up lad from the south side of Dublin, who’s into women, rugby and scrounging off his parents, not necessarily in that order.

But before I even got to read the book, I discovered his weekly column in the Irish Times, and then promptly bought myself a ticket to his stage play, Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, which I saw at The Gaiety Theatre on my trip to Dublin in April. A fan had been made — and I hadn’t even read the novel yet.

Fast forward to last week, and looking for some light relief in between reading Ulysses and Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, I extracted The Oh My God Delusion from the pile and settled down for what amounted to one giant giggling fit. Indeed, there are many sequences in this novel which will make me want to laugh out loud when I recall them at a later date (especially the one where Ross draws a moustache on his four-year-old’s face using a semi-permanent black marker, only to be accused of child abuse by agitated onlookers).

The story is essentially a preposterous one, but it couldn’t be more contemporary if it tried. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but Howard paints a pretty realistic picture of Dublin circa 2009: the property bubble has burst, the banks have gone bust, big name brands are going into receivership, people are losing jobs and no one has any money (read credit) to spend.

Even Ross, with his privileged background, is feeling the effects of the recession. Now that his job at the estate agents Hook, Lyon and Sinker no longer exists (the company went belly up, to be replaced by an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet), he helps his mate repossess people’s flatscreen TVs, jacuzzis and the like when they default on the payments.

Then, when his wife’s upmarket fashion boutique looks to be on the brink of financial ruin, he does something radical. He buys an apartment on a ghost estate as a kind of insurance against losing the family home in any bankruptcy proceedings. He is told that the remaining vacant apartments on the Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Estate will be acquired by UCD (University College Dublin) as student dormitories (Ross looks forward to the parties), only to discover that social services are using it to house people on welfare.

Cue many hilarious — and edgy — moments between Ross and his neighbours, Terry and Larry, who turn out to be from another class entirely: they are gun-toting, drug-pushing Dublin gangsters, and Ross’s 12-year-old son, Ro, has taken a shine to them.

There are loads of subsidiary storylines involving characters grappling with the sudden change in Ireland’s economic climate.

Ross’s mother, for instance, is holding out against pressure to accept a revised pay deal for the cookery programme she hosts on RTE — and the scenes in which she presents her show, which has been “dumbed down” to only include ingredients that the average person can afford, are very funny.

I’m in the sack, roysh, watching the latest episode of her show since it was renamed FO’CK on a Budget and it’s possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. She’s showing the camera, like, an ordinary corn on the cob?

‘Now,’ she’s going, ‘when I want to eat sweetcorn — like most people — it simply has to be Fallon & Byrne, with their wonderful, wonderful vegetable range, all fresh, all organic and all locally produced. However, if you’ve ever been made redundant — or you’ve been shamed by the media into accepting an arbitrary cut in your standard of living — a cheaper alternative is now available…’

The next thing, roysh, she puts down the corn on the cob and picks up what looks very much to me like a tin of sweetcorn, except from the way she’s holding it, it might as well be white dog shit.

‘Now, this is what’s known as processed food — and, if certain people in this very building are to be believed, it’s going to be all in for the next few years. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be staring at this rather odd-looking, ribbed-aluminium can, thinking, “But how do I get the food — and I use that word advisedly — out of there?” Well, don’t panic — you do it using one of these…’

I don’t actually believe it. She’s about to show the nation how to use a focking tin opener.

‘As recently as the 1980s,’ she goes, and you can tell she’s struggling to even say the words, ‘you would have found one of these items in most household kitchen drawers, although they became obsolete with the advent of farmers markets and the drive towards fresh, agrichemical-free produce with fewer food miles…’

Part of the reason why the humour in this book works so well is that Ross, his mother, and pretty much the entire cast of characters in it, have no real sense of what it is like to truly suffer. There’s a real disconnect in their reality with the reality of so many others who are really struggling to make ends meet. Ross, for instance, thinks his world is coming to an end when he is told to hand over a much-beloved prize possession — a rugby medal he won when he was 18 — while all around him his contemporaries are downsizing their homes, buying their groceries on credit or getting married on a very tight budget.

And while I suspect some of the humour — the “in” jokes, the rhyming slang, the play on accents — might not translate across the Irish Sea (or the Atlantic), most everyone will understand the satire on the class divide, between the haves and the have nots, between the snobs and, to use a Ross term, the skangers.

The book is a comedy, but, as the saying goes, there’s many a true word spoken in jest.

IMG01324-20110608-1133

Finally, my edition comes with some terrific black and white illustrations by Alan Clarke, which are just as funny as the text they accompany. I really love the picture above, showing Ross being “romantically attacked” by a Rottweiler while his gangland neighbours piss themselves laughing.

Oh how I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series!

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jon Canter, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter

AShortGentleman

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 384 pages; 2009.

Jon Canter is a comedy writer* for a slew of British comedians, including Lenny Henry, Dawn French and Griff Rhys Jones — and it shows. This is possibly the funniest novel I’ve read since I first discovered the joys of Wodehouse back in the summer of 2007. It’s also possibly the most English.

The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along. Mind you, Robert details his entire life story, from his privileged childhood growing up in Notting Hill (“giving me splendid access to all the museums and concert halls London has to offer”), all the way through to his fifties when he’s set to inherit the family’s country house on the Suffolk coast. This means it takes almost 300 pages to figure out how he got himself in such a dire pickle.

From the very start it is clear that Robert is quite a strange man, although he, of course, thinks he’s completely normal, albeit part of an educated (and downright snobby) elite. He’s very analytical and does everything by the book: he is careful never to put a foot wrong and, like all good lawyers, could argue his way out of a paper bag.

There is nothing remotely frivolous or spur-of-the-moment about him. He seems emotionally distant from everyone around him, and while his story-telling comes across as aloof and arrogant, reading between the lines you get the feeling that everyone he meets, including his friends and colleagues, thinks he’s a bit of a dweeb, someone they can laugh at and treat badly because he simply won’t pick up on the nuances of certain situations.

For instance, when he decides to lose his virginity he does it all with the precision of planning a military campaign. When, at age 33, he decides he should settle down and get married (six years after his last girlfriend), he chooses his bride not on the basis of love but on the basis of “something more precious, more durable, and, above all, more rational. I was in the throes of marriage at first sight”. Two children, a house in the country and a promotion to QC follow. Later, without wishing to reveal any plot spoilers, things begin to fall apart…

I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half, particularly Robert’s hapless relationship with his first girlfriend, Judy Page, is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing. How they raise their children, for instance, is summed up pretty well in this little vignette, when Robert is corralled into the bathroom by his ageing parents to discuss the unsuitability of his relationship to Judy Page:

This was extraordinary. I’d never been in a bathroom with my parents. When I was a boy, there was no ‘parenting’. There were parents but it was not their job to hang around the bathroom having a ‘relationship’ with you, by spending ‘quality’ (or quantity) time. Why would they want to spend time with you? You were a child. You mother would enquire from a different floor, whether you had had a bath and brushed your teeth. Your father wouldn’t ask. He was reading the paper. He took it on trust that you were having, or would be having, or had had a bath. For more than half the year, of course, you were at boarding school. He was reading the paper a hundred and fifty miles from your bath.

The book is also littered with footnotes, all very funny, which add to the enjoyment of the text. Indeed, even before the story begins we are presented with Acknowledgements, a Foreword, a Preface, an Author’s Note and an Author’s Further Note, and at the end there’s a Dog Index (noting all the references to dogs — Britain’s favourite pet — in the text) and a postscript by one of Robert’s so-called friends. You get the idea.

All in all, this might not be everyone’s idea of a great book, but I found A Short Gentleman completely in tune with my own dry sense of humour, the perfect light-hearted read for whenever you need a good laugh.
* He’s also a Jeremy Clarkson lookalike.

Abacus, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, J.P. Donleavy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy

GingerMan

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 346 pages; 1997.

For someone who has an incurable penchant for Irish fiction, I can’t believe I let J.P. Donleavy slip me by for so long. But until very recently he was completely unknown to me. So when my Other Half went on a solo run to Dublin recently and bought me The Ginger Man as a gift I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Funnily enough, I recognised the cover of the book, but I’m not sure why. I don’t think I have ever picked it up in a book shop. But that’s by the by.

The blurb on my edition waxes rather lyrical, calling it a “masterpiece” and “a triumph”, but I think that’s not credit enough. The Ginger Man is a thoroughly wonderful, riotously funny, head-shakingly brilliant read. I loved it from the very first line to the last.

First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. More than 50 years on, the story is still crude and ribald but certainly not as offensive as it must have seemed in more temperate times in places verging on puritan.

The story follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who is studying law at Trinity College just after the Second World War. Married to an English woman and with an infant daughter, Dangerfield is a chancer who shies away from any form of responsibility, preferring to hang out with his friend, fellow student Kenneth O’Keefe, rather than do any proactive study.

Obsessed with booze and women, he does everything a married man should not do: spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol, staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife. He also has numerous adulterous affairs in which he treats the women abominably. He is, in short, a thoroughly unlikable and selfish cad. And yet, in Donleavy’s hands, Dangerfield is a character you love to hate. I spent most of the time thinking this can’t be true, he can’t get away with this, surely the man has a conscience? And kept turning the pages, hoping to discover that the man would mend his wicked ways if only he realised his behaviour was so outrageously appalling.

The book is written in a weird mish-mash of viewpoints, effortlessly switching between first person and third person, typical of the following paragraph:

‘Come here and sit beside me while I open this bottle.’
She came and sat on the mattress beside him, leaning against the wall, watching him with a flourish of wrist, pop the cork. We lay in the remnants of coal. And a pile of turf. I happen to know that dogs and cats prefer coal and turf. And I don’t relish finding myself sitting in it.

There are some scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; others so shockingly brutal you’re not sure you want to read on. I found myself not knowing whether I should be grimacing or chortling throughout. But it’s this very fine line between comedy and tragedy that makes The Ginger Man work — on so many different levels. The beauty of this rather marvellous novel is that it paints a very human portrait of a man so desperately troubled — financially, emotionally, mentally — that it’s hard not to empathise with him just a little.

For those that want to know more about J.P. Donleavy, there’s a wonderful profile of him on the Guardian website. He sounds like a truly fascinating character with whom I must acquaint myself more fully!

Author, Book review, England, Everyman's Library, Fiction, literary fiction, PG Wodehouse, Publisher, Setting

‘Something Fresh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

SomethingFresh

Fiction – hardcover; Everyman; 260 pages; 2005.

Looking for something lighthearted and fun to read? Then look no further than P.G. Wodehouse’s Something Fresh, the first in his Blandings Castle series.

First published in 1915, it captures an England from a different era, where maids and butlers and valets looked after the bumbling upper classes with aplomb and where single women who worked for a living were frowned upon. But despite this, the book doesn’t feel particularly dated, perhaps because there’s a lightness of touch that makes it so effortless and enjoyable to read.

The plot revolves around an incredibly rare and valuable scarab — that’s the funny bug-like thing pictured on the front cover — which Lord Emsworth absent-mindedly pockets during an inspection of a collection put together by a retired American millionaire, Mr Peters. When Mr Peters discovers the scarab is missing he knows who has taken it but is unable to confront “the darned old sneak-thief” because his daughter is about to marry Lord Emsworth’s son in a lavish wedding at Blandings Castle.

What follows is a kind of farce in which Mr Peters tries to get his scarab back. He offers a substantial reward to anyone who can retrieve it for him, and it is here that two rivals — Ashe Marson, a poorly paid writer of  detective stories, and  Joan Valentine, a magazine correspondent, both from London — clash swords.

Throw in an overweight private detective, a rich “idiot child”, a fussy butler and an efficient private secretary, among others, and the comic world of P.G. Wodehouse comes truly alive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. And while I didn’t find it as hugely funny as I’d been lead to expect, I tittered quite a bit, mainly at the clever word play, and I emitted a lot of loud gaffaws when I came across the book’s very funny climax. More please.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michael Frayn, Publisher, Setting

‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn

TowardsTheEnd

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 221 pages; 2000.

Michael Frayn’s  Towards the end of the Morning should come with a warning: don’t read in public. Honestly, I have not read such a humorous book in a long time. It is laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s set in London at an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners.

At the heart of the story are two journalists – the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads.

Through their day to day struggles, Frayne is able to tackle some big themes – old school journalists coming to grips with an emerging tide of bright, young and worryingly efficient graduate trainees; newspaper journos trying to break into the much better paid field of broadcast journalism; the class system; how to get on the property ladder; and race relations – but he does it very deftly and with great humour.

Towards the end of the Morning was written in 1967, but it holds up well as a modern classic. And Frayn’s use of dialogue is spot on. He captures the art of conversation very well, often with more than three or four people speaking at once, very tricky if you’ve ever tried to do it yourself. It is perhaps Frayn’s ear for dialogue that has made him such a gifted and much-praised playwright (Copenhagen and Noises Off are two of his more well known ones, although he has written 11 others).

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It would appeal to anyone looking for a fast-paced funny read.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Dead Famous’ by Ben Elton

DeadFamous

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 382 pages; 2002.

Put succinctly, Ben Elton’s Dead Famous is a superb whodunit. It’s also a superb spoof on reality TV — in particular the Big Brother phenomenon — and the way in which the culture of celebrity pervades modern day life.

The 10 contestants on House Arrest are vacuous, self-obsessed 20-somethings who are naively manipulated by the show’s producer to boost ratings and advertising revenues. Before long the contestants all have a reason to hate one another, and then the unimaginable happens:

It’s Day 27 in the House Arrest house and there’s a murder in the toilet.

Despite all the hundreds of cameras recording the housemates 24/7, there is no evidence to show who committed the crime. Consequently, ratings soar as viewers try to determine who is the killer.

Elton’s story sounds like a straightforward plot, but it’s not. He cleverly withholds the identity of the victim until you are at least half way through the novel. This means that while you know someone’s been killed, you begin to analyse every housemate, looking at their potential to kill or be killed. You end up turning the pages at a furious pace and, if you’re like me, you may find yourself reading this book in one sitting.

If you’re a Big Brother fan, you will love this book. It’s clever, wry and funny, but above all it is hugely entertaining.

Author, Book review, Brendan O'Connell, Fiction, general, Ireland, O'Brien Press, Publisher, Setting

‘The Mammy’ by Brendan O’Connell

TheMammy

Fiction – paperback; The O’Brien Press; 174 pages; 1994.

The Mammy is Irish comedian Brendan O’Connell’s first book. It’s a very simple tale about a widow struggling to raise seven children on Dublin’s north side in the late 1960s.

Each chapter is essentially a short story centred on the individual characters that make up Agnes Browne’s family. There are funny little episodes with not-so-funny punchlines, and the language, studded with ‘Dublin-speak’, is very stripped back to the point of being boring.

Aside from these faults, it is a lighthearted story — punctuated with pathos — about a family on the wrong side of the tracks, the strength of friendship in trying times, and the essential goodness of people in a more naive era.

Apparently the book has been made into a film starring Angelica Houston, and while I haven’t seen it, I think it would probably be more entertaining than the novel.